Defenders of wildlife and biodiversity on Tuesday decried a proposal released by President Donald Trump's Department of Agriculture that would sharply curtail the U.S. Forest Service's ability to weigh in on the activities of oil and gas giants in the country's national forests, opening millions of acres of protected land to drilling operations.
The Trump administration officially entered its proposal into the Federal Register on Tuesday morning, explaing that a desire to decrease the "regulatory burden on the oil and gas industry" led the USDA to propose the rule change.
"Under this new rule, the administration would escalate oil and gas development, increase carbon emissions and exacerbate the climate crisis, putting human as well as the forests' health at risk at a time when public health is the nation's top concern."
—National Audubon Society
Under the new rule, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) would no longer be required to give public notice of the approval of development plans in the national forests, reducing the chance for the public—including tens of millions of Americans who rely on drinking water supplies that originate in the forests—to give input on the decisions.
The rule removes explicit confirmation of USFS consent as a required step in the process of issuing oil and gas leases; requires the service to protect only specific, named natural resources instead of wild places within forests; and removes environmental considerations as criteria for approval of plans.
The USFS would also lose the veto power it generally holds over projects if the environmental impacts are deemed too great, according to The Wilderness Society. That authority would be ceded to "the fossil fuel-focused Bureau of Land Management," the group said.
"By undermining the public participation and environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act, this proposed rule puts the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of the public interest," said Will Fadely, senior government relations representative for The Wilderness Society, in a statement. "Our national forests and grasslands have never been more important for preserving and passing a healthy world forward to future generations."
With the Earth facing the climate crisis, the proposal would accelerate planet-heating fossil fuel emissions while ridding the U.S. of millions of acres of the dense forests that absorb carbon and have the potential to slow the crisis.
"National forest lands serve a vital role in the climate solution by storing carbon," said the National Audubon Society. "Under this new rule, the administration would escalate oil and gas development, increase carbon emissions and exacerbate the climate crisis, putting human as well as the forests' health at risk at a time when public health is the nation's top concern."
The grassroots group WildEarth Guardians suggested that the proposal was shocking but unsurprising, considering Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has referred to trees as "crops" to be harvested.
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"It's no surprise that his 'vision' for National Forests includes more logging, mining, cattle grazing, and drilling," the group tweeted.
U.S. Agriculture @SecretarySonny has bragged "we see trees as crops," so it's no surprise that his "vision" for National Forests includes more logging, mining, cattle grazing, and drilling. Take action! #KeepItWild #KeepItPublic https://t.co/nDbQ0Uoq8s
— WildEarth Guardians (@wildearthguard) August 29, 2020
Just 2.7% of acreage in the national forests are currently leased to energy companies, but the Guardian reported that the rule could open up nine million of the 193 million acres of forest, spanning 47 states, for oil and gas drilling. Forests in New Mexico, Montana, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada are thought to be most vulnerable to the plan, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The proposal was revealed six weeks after the Trump administration finalized its rule weakening the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), rolling back 50-year-old regulations that require government agencies to conduct a thorough review of environmental impacts before approving infrastructure projects.
"When combined with the Trump administration's NEPA rollbacks, the new rule will speed up oil and gas drilling on Forest Service lands while reducing transparency and curtailing environmental review," said the NRDC.
Conservation groups noted that in addition to putting wildlife and biodiversity at risk, the proposal "will further undermine Indigenous interests and sovereignty" as many tribal lands lie in or near national forests.
This new rule puts communities at risk. More drilling in our national forests and grasslands not only means fewer birds like Mallards and Prairie Warblers, but degrades our lands and natural spaces, and threatens water supplies for millions of people. https://t.co/J33mfTzXmE
— Audubon Society (@audubonsociety) August 31, 2020
"The administration really outdid itself with a proposal that has the Forest Service walking away from its responsibilities for managing our national forests and grassland while closing the door on public oversight," said Nada Culver, vice president of public lands and senior counsel for the National Audubon Society.
"This is not just a conservation issue, it's putting our communities at risk," Culver added. "Replacing forested areas and grasslands with drill pads and access roads not only means fewer birds like Mallards and Prairie Warblers, but also degrades our lands and natural spaces, and threatens water supplies for millions of people."